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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 630: debated on Monday 30 October 2017

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coastal Communities: Economic Growth

Since 2012, we have invested £174 million in 295 projects for the coastal communities fund. These are forecast to help to deliver more than 18,000 jobs. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, £2.5 million has been provided through the fund to support economic growth and job creation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the coastal communities fund helps to attract more visitors to our coastal communities so that they may thrive? Will he promise to consider very carefully any future bid to the fund to restore the front of Ramsgate Royal harbour in my constituency—the only royal harbour in the country—to its former glory?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The £2.5 million already allocated to his constituency will help South Thanet to thrive, and will certainly help to attract more visitors. I commend him for the role he has played to secure that funding. He is a passionate advocate of Royal Ramsgate harbour, and I know he has a meeting with the Local Growth Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), coming up in which he can discuss his plans.

The Interreg North Sea Region Programme is funded by EU grants totalling €167 million. What plans has the Secretary of State made to replace that funding when the UK leaves the EU?

The hon. Lady will know that we have set out plans for a UK shared prosperity fund, which will eventually replace EU funding such as that of the European regional development fund and the European social fund.

Landlords and Letting Agents

2. What plans he has to ensure that landlords and letting agents meet contractual obligations to tenants. (901463)

We will make it mandatory for landlords to be part of an ombudsman scheme and we are increasing local authorities’ powers to tackle rogue practices. We also published on 18 October a call for evidence seeking views on regulating all letting and managing agents.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. May I urge the Secretary of State, in clamping down on rogue practices in the private sector, to keep a weather eye on some of our housing associations, which often seem to think that they are above and beyond the rules and regulations that govern the private sector?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the profile of social housing tenants. Last month, we announced that there will be a Green Paper on social housing, which will be a broad review of issues facing the social housing sector to ensure that tenants’ voices are heard. The Housing Minister is travelling across the country to listen to tenants and ensure that we truly understand all the issues.

Under Newham Council’s excellent landlord licensing, working with the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the council has issued 2,834 notices since January 2013 to address and abate serious hazards. The decision on reauthorising the scheme was due seven weeks ago. Will the Secretary of State assure me that from 1 January he will not deny private tenants in my constituency the vital protection provided by this scheme?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that selective licensing is an important part of ensuring that we can look after tenants, particularly those who might be more vulnerable. We consider every application we get carefully, as we want to make sure that that consideration is proportionate. We will take a careful look at the case he mentions.

I welcome the Government’s plans to reform the lettings market and the estate agency market. Given, however, that most firms undertake both lettings and sales, will the Government avoid the unnecessary duplication of rules and regulators? After all, separate regulatory regimes could be expensive for business and confusing for consumers.

My hon. Friend speaks with experience and makes a good point. Of course we want to avoid unnecessary and duplicative regulation, but I think he agrees with the Government that it is necessary to regulate letting agents and it is good that we are progressing with that.

Is not one of the first lines of defence against rogue landlords local government, particularly environmental health inspectors? How does taking an axe to local government finance help tenants?

The hon. Gentleman should know that when we changed the law in April 2017 so that local authorities had more power to intervene against rogue landlords, we also provided additional funding of some £12 million.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. So many more people are renting today than ever before, and, as we fix our broken housing market, it is important that we listen to them and find ways to ensure that more of them are offered longer tenancies. That is why I recently announced that the Government are actively looking at the issue, and we will bring forward plans to ensure this in the Budget.

Residential Tower Block Safety

3. What progress has been made on improving safety in residential tower blocks since the Grenfell Tower fire. (901465)

We have established a building safety programme and identified all unsafe aluminium composite material cladding on English social housing buildings over 18 metres. I have also asked all local authorities in England to identify such cladding on privately owned residential tower blocks and to report their findings to the Government. This is to ensure that appropriate action is being taken to keep all residents safe.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but I want to ask him about other things that can be done to prevent fires from claiming lives. We know that sprinklers save lives, yet only 2% of council tower blocks have sprinkler systems. Is the Secretary of State content with that state of affairs, and if not, four months on from the Grenfell tragedy, when will he stop passing the buck and help local authorities fit sprinklers in high-rise buildings?

The hon. Lady will know that it has been the law in building regulations since 2007 that any new high-rise dwellings above 30 metres are required to have sprinklers fitted. In terms of whether that is appropriate and whether more can be done, the appropriate way to look at that is through the independent review of building regulations and fire safety that Dame Judith Hackitt is undertaking, and we will listen very carefully. She is gathering evidence, and there is a call for evidence right now—perhaps the hon. Lady would like to have an input into that.

A case in Cannock has highlighted the building of homes in very close proximity to a licensed recycling site that handles highly toxic chemicals, prompting real concerns about fire safety. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the need to ensure that fire safety is a top priority in house building too?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. I am not aware of the details, but I would happily meet her to discuss it further.

23. What progress has the Secretary of State made in introducing compulsory electrical safety checks? (901486)

The hon. Lady will know, first, that the Department’s responsibilities in this area are shared with other Departments, such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I am working with my colleague the Secretary of State there to look into this further. Also, the building regulations and fire safety review is a broader fire safety review, and I certainly expect it to look at those issues too.

Is it not an irony that it was not that enough money was not spent on Grenfell Tower, but that £10 million was spent on it to provide cladding to stop water ingress, and that that caused the whole problem? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as experts have told me, sprinklers are not the sole solution to this issue? Sprinklers alone, without sound fire doors, will not work, and there are other provisions that can be made.

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will not speculate on Grenfell Tower and the causes of that terrible tragedy—I am sure he understands that. However, in terms of his broader point about measures that are also important, such as fire doors, we found in Camden, for example, when fire safety checks were done, that hundreds of fire doors were not in place. There are other measures alongside sprinklers that certainly can be taken and should be taken where necessary.

What redress will be available to private leaseholders in a private residential block that has failed fire safety tests where the company does not have the money to carry out that work or goes into dissolution?

First, the hon. Lady will know that there are redress mechanisms available at the moment. Many of them depend on whether the freeholders or the managing agents are members of a redress scheme. This is one of the reasons why I recently announced the need to regulate all managing agents, who often look after these types of buildings, and to see what more we can do.

Housing Associations such as the Guinness Partnership, which operates residential blocks in my constituency, also have an important role to play in fire safety. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on them to review, and where necessary improve, their fire safety to make sure residents are safe?

Yes, I will join my hon. Friend in calling for that. He is right to point out the critical role that housing associations play. Ever since the terrible tragedy that took place at Grenfell Tower, I have seen an excellent response from housing associations, and certainly from the National Housing Federation, and I will continue to work with them.

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee this morning issued a report on building regulations and fire safety in Scotland. In terms of the recommendations and the support the Committee is giving to the ministerial working group in Scotland, it supports unannounced inspections by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and a national inventory of all high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland. Would the Minister support such recommendations for England?

I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said, and I have followed developments closely in Scotland. We are working closely with our Scottish colleagues to make sure that we can share information and knowledge on this very important issue. As to whether we would take similar steps in England, it is important that I leave the first-point decision making for the independent building regulations review.

Children in Temporary Accommodation

Temporary accommodation ensures that no child is left without a roof over their head. Homelessness prevention is at the centre of our approach to protecting the most vulnerable. We are spending over £950 million until 2020 to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as implementing the most ambitious set of legislative reforms in decades with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

I asked the Minister what recent estimate he had made of the number of children in temporary accommodation. The answer is that there are more than 120,000—up 66% since his Government came to power. Why?

The number of children in temporary accommodation is below its peak in 2006, but we are certainly not complacent. That is why we have put £402 million into the flexible homelessness support grant over the next two years so that local areas can plan strategically to reduce the number of people in temporary accommodation.

Three and a half billion pounds has been spent on temporary accommodation in the private sector in the past five years. Most of the cost of this is found from the Department for Work and Pensions, even for households that work. Would this money not be better spent on building and letting council homes whose rent would be less than half that of expensive, poor-quality, temporary accommodation?

That is exactly why we have introduced the flexible homelessness support grant and are devolving £402 million to local authorities over the next two years so that they can plan more strategically, as I said to the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker). The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the use of temporary accommodation in her area is actually falling.

The number of families in temporary accommodation in Croydon has doubled in seven years. Right now, two thirds of families in Croydon in local authority housing are in debt and at risk of eviction directly because of universal credit. How will the Minister stop more families in Croydon on universal credit becoming homeless and spending the winter months in temporary accommodation?

The latest available figures show that the number of people in temporary accommodation in Croydon is actually falling. This Government have given £1 million to Croydon for the homelessness prevention trailblazer that it put in for. We have also given £870 million in discretionary housing payments to help people who have short-term difficulty in sustaining their accommodation.

Wealden District Council has provided a stellar service supporting vulnerable children and homeless children. However, pressure at East Sussex County Council may lead to a change in service provision in rural areas like Wealden. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and Wealden Council to help it to continue to deliver superb children’s services?

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will certainly be willing to meet her. We will get that meeting into the diary.

Child victims of human trafficking are the responsibility of local government, but adult victims of human trafficking are dealt with nationally. Would it not be a good idea to make child victims of human trafficking looked after nationally, which would also free up the money for local government to look after other children?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is a very important issue that we are considering very carefully, particularly as we come up to the local government finance settlement. I certainly hear what he says, and no doubt his views will be considered as we take this area of policy forward.

Northamptonshire has a disproportionately large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children, who are very expensive for the local authority to look after. Will my hon. Friend look at the local government funding formula to make sure that Northamptonshire is getting its fair share of resources?

I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend puts to the House, particularly those that relate to the motorway network that runs through Northamptonshire. He knows that we have undertaken to conduct a fair funding review to see how local government resource is distributed. We are still committed to that, and we will take the work forward shortly.

Despite the shocking increases in homelessness overseen by this Government, the recent National Audit Office report found that the Department has not produced a strategy to tackle homelessness. When is it going to come up with a plan and publish it, so we can finally see some action for the 120,000 homeless children in Britain today?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are doing a significant amount to change the culture across the country and make sure that we do far more in relation to prevention. Through the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, we are confident that we are going to see significant progress. As I said at the start of this group of questions, we are putting £950 million into this up to 2020.

Mayors: Economic Growth

I have met or corresponded with every metro Mayor in England during the last month. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is the midlands engine champion, and he chairs an inter-ministerial group to drive forward its growth.

Does the Minister agree that one of the vital roles to be played by elected Mayors, such as Andy Street in the west midlands, is to focus on skills—particularly in areas such as the Black country, where we have a lot of young people without basic skills—to make sure that young people can take the opportunities and the jobs that are out there and drive economic growth?

As my hon. Friend is aware, Andy Street is already playing a vital role in tackling the skills gap. My hon. Friend will also be aware that we are devolving the adult education skills budget from 2019 to support all our metro Mayors as they drive forward skills in their area.

The Government’s devolution to city region Mayors has been a real success in the west midlands. Last month, Andy Street announced £2.1 million for the region’s creative and technology industries. Does my hon. Friend agree that devolution can bring only prosperity, jobs and a bright future to the people of my constituency and across Walsall?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Andy Street is a prime example of how the leadership and accountability of metro Mayors drive forward our country’s economy. Only this month, he approved a bike-sharing scheme in the west midlands. Move over, Boris bikes; it is time for Street cycles.

Does the Minister support the innovative work of Andy Street to boost the number of houses in the west midlands—absolutely key to economic growth—by intensifying the use of urban areas to take pressure off our green belt, particularly around Solihull?

The Mayor of the west midlands, Andy Street, is determined to build the houses we need. We are supporting development across our country through the £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund, and the outcome of the bidding process will be available shortly.

The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the TUC and many of the Minister’s colleagues in local government believe that there is a very strong economic case for a devolved settlement for One Yorkshire. When the Minister whiles away the wee hours working through his ministerial box, does he ever think that he might be on the wrong side of this argument?

The Government have been absolutely clear, not least in the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 15 September, that we will not undermine or unpick the South Yorkshire devolution deal, which, after all, was legislated for by this House of Commons. However, I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman and I have held recent discussions, which have been extremely helpful. We have also been clear that completion of the South Yorkshire deal does not preclude any other devolution discussions across Yorkshire.

I am pleased that responsibility for the health and work programme has been devolved in Greater Manchester to the metropolitan Mayor, Andy Burnham, but may I ask the Minister whether the funding that has been made available—£52 million, including European structural fund money—will be continued beyond the period of the SF funding, with the Government making good that money? Will responsibility for the programme continue to be devolved to the Manchester Mayor?

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham—[Interruption.] We have to give Labour Members something to cheer about, don’t we? He is doing an exceptional job in driving forward Manchester and its economy. The hon. Lady will be aware that a recent guarantee was put in place for all European funding. What happens after that guarantee is ultimately a matter for this House.

Far from being devolution to the street, this is more like a devolution cul-de-sac. Is it not the truth—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State can learn something from this. Is it not the truth that devolution has stalled? That is bad news for those with devolved settlements, but it is worse news for the 32 million people in England who do not have any devolution settlement whatever. When can we expect to see the framework for devolution in England?

Some 33% of England now has an elected Mayor, and it is the Conservative party that is returning power back from London to our regions. Unlike the Labour party, which just wants to nationalise and centralise everything, I can say, like Citizen Smith, “Power to the people!”

It is clear from what the Minister says that Andy Street is doing a grand job in the west midlands, but what about areas that do not have elected Mayors? Will the Minister assure me that they will be considered when the Government look at further devolution projects? We urgently need one in northern Lincolnshire.

The Government’s manifesto committed to provide clarity about what devolution means for different administrations across England by setting out a clear devolution framework. As we set out the next steps on our industrial strategy, this is exactly what we intend to do, as well as clarifying things like town deals for places such as Grimsby.

Bristol is the only city outside London to make a net contribution to GDP, but we need money to invest in infrastructure if we are to make the most of that economic contribution. We now have a bid in for £250 million from the housing infrastructure fund. May I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State, who is very familiar with Bristol and the needs of the city, to look at that seriously, because the only way we can unlock the investment is to have that money?

The Mayor of the West of England, Tim Bowles, has worked closely with the Government in bringing forward his housing infrastructure fund bid. As I said in answer to an earlier question, decisions about that fund will be made shortly.

Council Tax: Non-payment

6. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on recent trends in the number of people given custodial sentences for non-payment of council tax. (901468)

It is for magistrates courts to decide whether a custodial sentence should be imposed for non-payment of council tax, taking account of the particular circumstances in each case. There has been a slight reduction in the number of such cases since 2009-10.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is it not time that the non-payment of council tax ceased to be an offence punishable by time in jail? How can it be right that anyone should have to do time for falling into debt?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that people in genuine hardship should be supported. That is why there are over 4 million people on local council tax support scheme payments throughout the country. However, we also need to recognise that every penny of council tax that is not collected means higher council tax bills for law-abiding citizens who do pay. There needs to be a form of enforcement and sanction, but it needs to be used proportionately. As the hon. Gentleman will see, the number of people getting a custodial sentence is actually falling.

Guidance to local authorities advises them to be sympathetic to those in genuine hardship. Does the Minister believe that a custodial sentence—with no right of appeal, no remission for good behaviour and no requirement for a pre-sentencing report—shows sympathy for those struggling to pay their council tax, and will it lead to more or fewer families being in genuine hardship?

Council tax, in real terms, is 9.1% lower than it was in 2010. During the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010, the cost of council tax doubled. As I said to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), 4 million people receive council tax support, and we are clear—we published guidance in 2013—about good practice. We want to make sure that those in genuine hardship are supported and that enforcement is proportionate.

Family Hubs

7. What steps he is taking to encourage local authorities to work with voluntary and private sector partners to establish family hubs. (901469)

I welcome the development of family hubs and we know that many areas are already moving towards this model of support for children and families. Local government and its partners understand the needs of their communities best, and they should be the ones to determine how they provide services for families.

As we know, the wheels can fall off any family’s wagon at any point; family hubs can be an essential part of the solution, to improve the lives of children up to the age of 18. Does the Minister agree that more local areas should upgrade their children’s centres to family hubs so that we can do this essential work?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to excellent services for children and families. Ultimately it is up to councils to decide on the best solution for their area, but it is important that the whole family has access to the right services to meet their needs.

On that point, of the 120,000 children in temporary accommodation across 77,240 families, 28% are housed in boroughs other than their own, and the receiving boroughs often have no idea that those children—many of them vulnerable—have entered their areas. Will the Minister consider the suggestion of providing family hubs at large-scale temporary accommodation centres outside home boroughs?

We are clear that when people are placed in temporary accommodation, access to things such as schooling is taken into account. We are also clear that when people are moved to a neighbouring or different borough, they should be informing the receiving borough and support should be given to those families. I am working to support London authorities that are working with the Greater London Authority to improve the procurement of temporary accommodation across London.

It is good to hear Members on both sides of the House talking about the value of early intervention and family hubs. I ask the Minister to come to Manchester to see the early years delivery model, which is now transforming lives in those early years, working across the voluntary and private sectors. Critical to those family hubs is the support of the local authority. Does he agree that the slash and burn approach to early intervention moneys is putting children’s lives at risk?

I am aware that under the northern powerhouse initiative we are putting £3.2 million into Manchester for early intervention. The next time I am in that neck of the woods I would certainly be keen to come and see what is working in Manchester. I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Government are committed to early intervention, both through children’s centres and the troubled families programme.

Across swathes of England, children’s services are now in crisis. Seven years of Government funding cuts to services supporting families is failing children and driving councils to the financial brink. Only last week, a poll showed that the majority of councillors in the Minister’s party did not back the cuts. When will the Minister finally admit the growing emergency in children’s social care and take some action, ahead of the Budget, to deal now with this major crisis for councils?

More than £200 billion is being given to local authorities up to 2020 to support local services. Children’s services and early intervention are among that funding stream. The Government are aware of the challenges in many areas with providing children’s services and safeguarding, and we continually look at ways in which we can support local government in that regard.

Assessment of Housing Need

On 14 September, we published a consultation that proposes a new standard approach to assessing housing need. The proposed approach will play a crucial role in helping to meet housing ambitions, reduce complexity and costs, and increase transparency.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Understandably, more and more people want to move to Cornwall—after all, it is the best place in the UK to work, raise a family or retire—and that is putting unprecedented levels of demand on our housing stock. We currently have over 20,000 people on the housing register and young people are being priced out of ever owning their own home. Does the Minister believe that the approach he outlines will help to deliver more housing for local people in Cornwall?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The starting point has to be an honest, open and consistent approach in assessing the number of homes an area needs. That is precisely what the new approach to housing needs assessment will deliver.

My constituency is also a beautiful place to live, but homes are not being sold because they are under leasehold arrangements. Will the Minister let us know when his excellent consultation on the crackdown on unfair leasehold practices will announce its results, so our housing market can get moving again?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. We need to ensure fairness in the system, which is precisely why we launched the consultation. A very significant number of people responded to it and we will respond to it in due course.

The housing need White Paper also covers viability assessments. Their use by developers is referred to in the consultation as gaming the system to avoid section 106 contributions, such as affordable housing. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at whether the assessments are appropriate for the market today, or whether they should be scrapped completely?

As my hon. Friend will know, we are consulting on proposed changes to viability assessments as part of the local housing needs assessment. The White Paper states that under our proposals we would expect assessments of affordable housing infrastructure needs to be considered at the plan-making stage, and that will ensure more certainty.

My constituents in the villages of Kidlington, Yarnton and Begbroke find themselves in a perverse situation. Cherwell District Council is proposing to build 4,400 homes in the green belt between the villages to meet Oxford city’s unmet housing need. Due to the sequencing of the plans, however, that unmet need is now down to go under the new proposed assessment. In short, the districts are putting the cart before the horse. Will the Minister agree to meet me, so I can explain the situation more fully and reassure my constituents that their grave concerns about this plan will be heard?

Of course I will meet the hon. Lady. We are committed to retaining the current green belt protections. There may be exceptional circumstances in which a local authority chooses to amend its green belt, but it has to take its local community with it.

Midlands Engine

10. What steps the Government are taking to support the delivery of economic growth through the midlands engine. (901472)

A strong midlands engine is vital to Britain’s economy. We have provided the midlands with £1.9 billion of local growth funding, and in March we launched the midlands engine strategy to drive economic growth and improve quality of life.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a clear focus of the midlands engine should be improving east-west connectivity—specifically, in relation to my constituency, a direct rail link to East Midlands airport and the new east midlands gateway?

I agree with my hon. Friend that transport links are critical to the success of the midlands engine. Midlands Connect predicts that improving connectivity across the midlands can secure a £1 billion-a-year boost to the regional economy and create some 300,000 jobs. The recently commissioned east midlands gateway connectivity study will consider carefully how to achieve this, and it will be looking at the East Midlands airport.

The Secretary of State has just said that transport links are essential if the midlands engine is to drive the economic growth we all want. Will he explain, therefore, why his colleagues will not allow the full electrification of the midland main line?

The hon. Gentleman will know that under this Government, since 2010, this country has seen record investment in transport infrastructure, including in the midlands. That includes the recent announcement about the help the Government will provide in creating the midlands rail hub concept.

From Tetney Lock to Chapel St Leonards, the coastline in my constituency is among the most beautiful in the midlands—and, dare I say it, in the country. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope, therefore, that the midlands engine will travel as far as the Lincolnshire coastline to invest in the vital infrastructure we need in our rural and coastal economies there?

I agree with my hon. Friend on many fronts, including how beautiful her constituency is, and the midlands engine does indeed travel that far. She is right to raise the particular challenges faced by our coastal communities, which is why we are launching a fifth round of our coastal communities fund early next year. I urge her to get her application in.

The midlands engine sits as a sister organisation to the northern powerhouse. In the light of the comments earlier, would the Secretary of State be willing to meet Yorkshire and the Humber MPs to discuss the future of devolution in the area, in order to drive economic growth in the region?

I recently received a request to meet Yorkshire and the Humber MPs and local council leaders. I have accepted that request and look forward to the meeting.

Affordable Homes

The Government are investing more than £9 billion between 2016 and 2021 to deliver a wide range of affordable housing, including homes for social rent, to meet the needs of a broad range of people. We have also confirmed long-term rent certainty for social landlords, which will create a stable investment environment to support councils and housing associations.

Local housing associations such as Saxon Weald in my constituency have welcomed recent Government announcements. What are the Government doing to help them to build more affordable homes?

Part of the £9 billion I just noted is the £2 billion of additional funding that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced, and that includes the clarity on rent. Housing association leaders I have spoken with are very positive about these measures, which will allow them to build additional affordable homes as well as improve current stock.

Will the Minister read something of the history of Harold Macmillan? He was a Prime Minister who actually built houses. This Government are not building houses and certainly not building affordable houses. When will there be an imaginative plan to build houses?

Almost 1 million homes have been built since 2010. The hon. Gentleman talks about our record. I can tell him that over the past six years more affordable homes have been built than were built in the first six years and the last six years of the last Labour Government. We will take no lectures from Labour on building affordable homes.

Has the Secretary of State had any further talks with lenders? Housing in St Albans is some of the most unaffordable in the country, and trying to get mortgages or extended lending terms is very difficult for those struggling to get on the housing ladder.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have announced an extra £10 billion for the Help to Buy scheme, and there are several other schemes in the market, but ultimately this is about making sure that more homes are built. That is what will drive affordability.

The City of York consultation on the local plan closes tonight, but it has failed massively on the tenure needed in the city and is 5,800 short of statutory guidance. Will the Minister ensure that if guidance is set it is followed?

We want to make sure that the right number of homes are built in the right places, and of course the plan will be assessed by an inspector.

Homes: Construction

15. What plans he has to increase the number of homes constructed each year; and if he will make a statement. (901477)

Our housing White Paper “Fixing our Broken Housing Market”, published in February, sets out how we will build the homes this country needs. Broadly speaking, we want to do this by diversifying those building homes, increasing build-out rates, supporting homebuyers and releasing more land.

Some 4,500 homes have been built at Beaulieu Park in Chelmsford and another 5,000-plus are planned, but the roads are at capacity and we need a new railway station and a bypass. That is Essex’s No. 1 priority for the housing infrastructure fund. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this important infrastructure to unlock housing?

My hon. Friend is a passionate supporter of new housing for her constituents, which is very welcome. Of course I will meet her . As she knows, I am not able to comment on any particular bids, but I can tell her that there has been a great deal of interest in the £2.3 billion for the housing infrastructure fund.

18. Does the Minister agree that as we embark on a major housing programme we should be building the houses of the future, such as net zero energy bill homes, which are particularly helpful to people on low incomes because they do not have to pay gas and electricity bills? (901481)

Yes, of course we should be doing precisely that. I should add, however, that since 2010 we have strengthened the energy requirements for new homes by 30%, which has reduced energy bills by an average of £200.

I thought I had already clarified it, but let me make it clear again. We believe in protecting the green belt. There will be exceptional circumstances that local authorities can consider, but they will need to take their local communities with them.

I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the House will join me in warmly welcoming back to his place the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles).

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is good to be back.

The Government have made remarkable progress in cutting the deficit from the 10.5% of GDP that we inherited in 2010 to 2.5% now. May I therefore urge everyone to back the Secretary of State’s call for special borrowing to put in place the infrastructure that will unlock the hundreds of thousands of extra houses that we need? This is the kind of borrowing that we should all be able to support.

Of course all of us in the House support the ambition to build more homes, but my hon. Friend should wait for the Budget announcement in relation to any specifics.

Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the need for social housing, particularly in new towns such as Harlow, and will he consider tax incentives to ensure that housing associations can build more social housing?

I can tell my hon. Friend that housing associations have hugely welcomed our announcements about rent certainty—social housing rents will rise by the consumer prices index plus 1% from 2020—and the investment of an extra £2 billion, and we are engaged in a constant dialogue with them.

Women on Local Councils

I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and representatives of the Fawcett Society to discuss this important issue. As a start, I shall be holding a round table with local government organisations, cross-party councillors and chief officers in November to discuss how we can break down the barriers that prevent women from engaging with local politics and standing in council elections.

Women are disproportionately affected by services that are controlled by local government, but just one in four directly elected mayors and 17% of local authority leaders are women. In order to address that imbalance, will the Government now legislate for all-women shortlists in local government elections?

As I have said, the Government take this issue very seriously. We want to see more women on councils, and in cabinets. I think that the political parties have a considerable part to play in that, and I think that Members of Parliament have a part to play in encouraging people to stand for election. As I have said, however, we will be looking at the position far more carefully.

I thank the Minister for meeting me and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). Will he consider introducing consistent maternity and paternity leave and adequate childcare policies throughout councils to encourage more women candidates to come forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for that meeting, and for the work that she has done with the Fawcett Society. As I said to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), we shall be looking at the issue very carefully, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will bring her ideas to the table when we meet in November.

Topical Questions

Since my last departmental oral questions, I have announced plans to require all private landlords to join a redress scheme and for all letting agents to be regulated; a clampdown on rogue managing agents; and plans to improve the process of buying and selling homes. Anyone who works hard should be able to afford a place they can call their own, and we will continue to do everything possible to make this vision a reality.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that people outside this place simply cannot grasp his reluctance to accept that sprinklers in tower blocks are necessary fire safety works? Coroners for both the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires recommended them, yet his Department is turning down requests from councils and housing associations to pay for them. We do not need another review; we need common sense.

The hon. Gentleman says coroners recommended them for Lakanal House. It is worth reminding him that when the then housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who is sitting opposite me now, was asked about the Government paying for sprinklers, he responded in Parliament:

“The resources local authorities receive for management and maintenance and major repairs should enable them to implement necessary fire safety measures”.—[Official Report, 16 September 2009; Vol. 496, c. 2209W.]

So there was no new money. What this Government have said is that we will help every local authority with any essential fire safety measures.

T7. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. The acute funding pressures on Northamptonshire County Council could be helpfully and substantially addressed by imaginative reform of local government structures in the county, including, perhaps, the establishment of a combined social care and health commissioner. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is open-minded to such suggestions? (901458)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Some councils have already come together and put forward restructuring proposals. We are considering each of them very carefully, and if Northamptonshire comes forward with one, I will look at it very carefully, too.

Some 3.5 million families with a variable rate mortgage face higher costs if the Bank of England puts up interest rates this week, so why are the Government, at this of all times, scrapping support for mortgage interest payments?

This Government have made it clear that it is our ambition to have more people own their own homes. There are a number of areas of intervention; one of the most prominent is the Help to Buy scheme, which is helping hundreds of thousands of people, who otherwise might not have been able to buy a home, to get on the housing ladder for the first time. Ultimately, if the right hon. Gentleman, like me, wants to help more people own their own home, he should support this Government with our housing White Paper and the other measures we take.

The Secretary of State is flannelling. Home ownership is at a 30-year low, and he does not seem to appreciate that 126,000 households, including 60,000 pensioner households, get help from the current scheme. From April, they and anyone else struggling with their mortgage costs will be offered a loan, but a loan is no good for those already struggling with the cost of the loans they have. Under Labour, with our mortgage rescue scheme, help was there when it was needed for families facing repossession. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is laughing; I ask this of the Secretary of State, who takes the subject more seriously: will he use the Budget to scrap the Government’s current changes and back instead a new home ownership guarantee scheme, as Labour proposed at the election?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about what happened on housing under Labour, so let me remind him: when he was the housing Minister, house building fell to almost its lowest level for almost 100 years, and the number of social units available for rent declined by 410,000. So we will not be taking any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman.

T8. Will the Secretary of State look at what can be done to lift restrictive planning conditions that are holding back long-term economic growth? (901459)

Planning conditions should, of course, only be imposed where they are necessary and meet the other requirements of national policy. What I can say more widely is that we are making changes in the planning system: planning fees are being increased, which will ensure there is more money in the planning authorities; and we are also looking at requiring an increase in build-out rates.

T2. In Bristol, university expansion means that a significant increase in student numbers is putting pressure on stretched local services right now, yet student accommodation providers contribute almost nothing to the costs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss bringing student accommodation within the scope of business rates, like other businesses, to help to ease this strain on Bristol and other councils? (901453)

Young people in Sutton and across London are depending on local action to help them to secure affordable housing. What lessons can the Government learn from the Mayor of London’s poor record on housing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has now become apparent that, despite all the talk from this Labour Mayor of London, not a single home for social rent was started during his first year in office. According to the National House Building Council, housing starts are down by a third in the last quarter. That is his track record. He needs to live up to his words and build more homes for Londoners.

T3. In 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government provided a transition grant to some local authorities. The calculations and assumptions for this were not published, and 80% of it went to Conservative councils. Will Ministers pledge today to make previous and future calculations available, and will they confirm from the Dispatch Box that future funding will be based on need rather than on anything else? (901454)

This was part of an historic four-year settlement, to which 97% of local authorities signed up. Yes, there were some challenges relating to the transition that certain places would have to make as a result of the formula at that time, and it has been widely recognised that that was dealt with in the right way. Labour authorities such as Lancashire benefited from it at the time.

Last year, the Federation of Small Businesses reported on the untapped potential of women in enterprise. However, Analysis Legal in Bramhall in my constituency was set up by a group of female lawyers and is going from strength to strength. Does the Minister agree that encouraging more women into business and supporting female entrepreneurs is key to the success of the northern powerhouse?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I am in active conversation with groups such as Northern Power Women, which have sought to find ways to champion visible and diverse role models of leadership in the northern powerhouse. After all, we should not ignore 51% of the talent pool.

T4. In an earlier question, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) stated that the introduction of family hubs should be accelerated, and that was implicitly welcomed by the Minister, who stated that it was down to councils use their budgets as they saw fit. Does the Minister agree, however, that the 60% real-terms cut to the children’s centres budget in Warwickshire and the planned reduction of 39 children centres to 12 family hubs should be stopped, and that the council’s significant reserves should be used for the maintenance of— (901455)

Order. To be fair, new Members are often not aware of the fact that topical questions are supposed to be shorter than substantives. It is as simple as that, and Ministers are supposed to respond in kind. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I think he should look back over the records of Warwickshire County Council, which clearly show a motion being put which was seconded by the then Labour group leader, who advocated the reduction in funding that the county council is now making in that area.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is liaising with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that ports such as Lowestoft have the necessary infrastructure and supply chain to take advantage of the opportunities arising from the forthcoming Fisheries Bill?

I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. We are working very closely with DEFRA and the Department for Transport to ensure just that.

T6. With the First Minister of Wales meeting the Prime Minister earlier today amid the continuing lack of clarity over Brexit, can the Secretary of State reassure me that the Government will respect the devolved nations and regions of the UK and not use Brexit as an opportunity for a power grab? (901457)

Of course we will respect the powers and responsibilities of the devolved nations, and we will make a resounding success of Brexit.

The proposed revised housing formula will add a further 8,000 homes to the current target of 30,000, which is unsustainable and undeliverable without large investment in infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and Medway colleagues to consider the disproportionate burden on the Medway towns?

I will of course meet my hon. Friend. I should just point out that Medway does not have an up-to-date plan at the moment, and I would encourage responses to the consultation proposals that we have set out.

T9. In the light of the recent announcement that the Welsh Government will continue with their council tax reduction scheme, which has reduced council tax for almost 300,000 low-income and vulnerable families and has excluded 220,000 completely, will the Minister consider seriously the Welsh Labour Government’s excellent approach and the situation in England, where households pay around £190 more? (901460)

As I explained to the House earlier, the local council tax support scheme gives help to over 4 million people who are on low incomes and may otherwise struggle to pay their council.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the concerns expressed by the leader of Leicestershire County Council about the letter he received about money going back to the NHS, rather than sticking with the social care authority, and about delayed transfers of care. Will he comment on that and on discussions he has had with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that. Delayed transfers of care are a shared endeavour between councils and the NHS. There has been good progress in Leicestershire, especially from using the better care fund, and this is a good opportunity to commend Leicestershire on its improving DTOC position.

I call Clive Lewis. [Interruption.] I am sure that what is on your iPhone is of very great importance, but your question is potentially of greater importance—get in there, man.

T10. Will the Government commit to fast-tracking their private rented sector consultation so that landlords are required to use their own funds to bring properties up to energy performance certificate band E by April next year? (901461)

That would have been done sooner if the previous Labour Government had taken the private rented sector more seriously, which they refused to do. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our consultation.

Given the understandable short postponement of the business rates retention scheme, will the Secretary of State meet me to consider the particular funding pressures that changing demographics are placing on outer-London boroughs?

Scotland secured €941 million in the 2014 to 2020 funding period, split across the European regional development fund and the European social fund. What plans do this Government have to ensure that those funds are replaced post-Brexit and that the Scottish Government will be involved in discussions?

We have set out that there will be a UK shared prosperity fund that will eventually replace EU structural funds and ERDF funds, and we will work together with the devolved nations in developing it.

One thing that would help to drive further economic growth in Corby is a new enterprise zone, so will my right hon. Friend make a case to the Chancellor in advance of the Budget for another round of bidding opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of enterprise zones, which have often been announced in previous Budgets. I am sure that he is making an excellent case, but if I can help him, I will happily do that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the increasing number of people who are illegally sub-letting in social housing? Does he agree that it is dangerous if we do not know who actually lives in a house?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. It is of course going on, which is why from April this year we have given landlords more powers to deal with it and more funding to consider such issues. In the forthcoming review and consultation that we have set out, we will be seeing what further action we can take.

Last week, developers pulled out of a plan to build 10,000 homes in Enfield and Haringey due to interference from the Mayor of London. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to consider that plan? We desperately need new homes in London, and the plan would seem to provide them.

We have already heard about the Mayor of London’s failure to provide a single property for social rent in the past year, so my hon. Friend is right to raise that. We will certainly be taking a much closer look.